Monday, May 08, 2006

Are you Eustonian?

I guess you could say that the Euston Manifesto is what happens if you're a decent, leftish bloke who takes things a little bit too much at face-value.

Or you could say that the pro-war liberal-left are in trouble : soon nobody is going to love them very much, and so they're clinging together for mutual warmth and comfort.

No-one's going to love them very much because the attack on Afghanistan delivered next-to-nothing, Iraq is a full-scale strategic and humanitarian disaster, and the neocon US government are merrily on their way to nuking Iran.

So there'll be no defence of the war in terms of a pragmatic utilitarianism. No-one will be able to say "it was an ugly business but look what the alternative would have been". With nukes in Iran and a mass-uprising against the US throughout the world, the consequences are going to be way worse than just leaving well alone and fumbling along until Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden had died of old age.

Meanwhile, when the smoke clears, if it's lucky, the US might salvage some self-esteem with a cathartic impeachment of the Bushies (compare Nixon after Vietnam) otherwise they're into post-WW2 Germany territory. Whatever. The US is going to be inherited by the anti-war right : a strange amalgum of isolationist, christian, cultural-conservatives and right-libertarians. No-one in this emerging dichotomy of Tories and Whigs is going to care much for pro-war, one-nation left-liberalism. Nor will the anti-war left, in any of its forms.

In fact, if they're really smart, the anti-war right will probably be able to paint the internationalist interventions of the neocons as a leftist conceit : a trend that started with Clinton's engagement in Kosovo and with Tony Blair and the Eustonians as star-witnesses for the continuity.

OK, so I'm being too cynical. The impulse behind the Euston Manifesto is a good one. To the extent that the world is in motion, and so must our political opinions be. It's good to sit down with a few like-minded people and thrash-out what you believe. And, God knows, the left need to sit down and do some serious thinking about what we believe and how this should be articulated in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, the main characteristic of the result is a bland superficiality. Sure, this is a consensus document, designed to appeal to the mainstream, centrist British (and Europhile American) opinion. But the absence of theoretical analysis here is striking : there's no attempt to dig beneath the surface or look for or deal with patterns or explanations or systems, no recognition of the enormity of change going on around us in the world, a mere rejection and distancing from the anti-war left in Britain but no attempt to refute it's arguments.

OK, I'd be the first to admit that while being both anti-war and left, I don't have much interest in, or read much by, the official "anti-war left". If I did, I too would probably find it urgent to try to distance myself from it. But you don't have to be confrontational, or sloganistic, or loyal to some naive identity politics to be radical. "Radical" is a hacker virtue, it's about wanting to get to the bottom of things, and find out how they really work. Nothing in the Euston manifesto betrays such a curiousity.

At the same time, the list of principles raised by the manifesto are obviously more-or-less important ones. So it's an interesting exercise (for me, at least) to go through them and analyse where and why I disagree, and what I'd be looking for as alternative in something I would sign up for. You can treat the manifesto as a kind of self-analysis tool to help discover your opinions. Here are mine (as of 2006) in the form of annotations to the original. As always, I may be wrong. So constructive criticism is encouraged.

1) For democracy.

We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures — freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion. We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold.

Phil : I'm committed to a democratic impulse. What I mean by democracy is something like "egalitarian weighting of opinion" : we should aspire to a situation where everyone has, more or less, equivalent power to shape the world (as it affects them). Certain groups shouldn't have privileged positions. Institutions that exist should exist for the purposes of aiding people to aggregate their powers or for curbing the rise of unfair, excessive power.

Sure, I recognise that many institutions we have : the nation state, national elections, separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers etc aren't at all bad. And I'll defend them against things that are worse. But I'm only committed to them pragmatically. If something comes along that we have reason to believe is better then I'd say we should give it a try.

I'm with the Eustonians on freedom of opinion, assembly and expression.

2) No apology for tyranny.

We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently "understand", reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy — regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces.

Phil : Yep, no apology for tyranny. But (as will be explored later) responsibility for fixing the world starts (like charity) at home. Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe are very bad people. And I won't really be sorry if any of them receive a good kicking until they stop moving. But ... the number of times I find myself conveniently behind any of them with a heavy object that I could bring crashing down upon their heads, is vanishingly small. I have pretty much zero influence over the government of North Korea.

OTOH I have, in virtue of being a British citizen, having a vote in the UK elections, and cultural membership of the wider Anglosphere, ever-so-slightly more influence on the actions of the UK and US governments. (Nearly none, admitedly, but a bit more than my influence in North Korea) And it's because that is where my power is most able to be applied that that's where my greatest responsibility to address wrongs lies.

Now, in practice, banging-on about how bad the UK and US governments are, doesn't really have much effect, but might help to convince people in these countries to be careful who they vote for in future. And might help educate the next generation of politicians about the kinds of errors they may be led into. Banging on about how bad Ahmadinejad is, can have only one possible effect : to increase the apparent legitimacy of a US / UK military attack on Iran. Now, my opinion is that this would be a far worse than not attacking Iran, just as making wars against Afghanistan and Iraq were worse than not making wars against them. In general, however bad a tyrant that rules a country, the burden of proof required to justify a war is pretty heavy.

Not, of course, infinite. I accept that there can be possible occasions when war is the answer. I just don't think we've seen any in the last 50 years.

But the real problem with a lazy self-indulgence in demonifying tyrants is that, beyond simply banging-the-drum for war, it also obscures a whole network of complex causes and effects that have led to the problem in the first place. Every war that's been made in the current "war on terror" has (paradoxically) both failed to define its objectives and then failed to meet them. (A war on Iran will be the same). And in every case, personifying the problem in the form of a tyrant was / will have been a major contribution to the crappy thinking behind the failure. If you think "bad people" are the problem, then "regime change" (remove the bad people) looks like the solution. But in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran (and of course the UK and US), "bad people" is a pseudo-problem which obscures the deeper malaise.

I decline to waste my time on empty condemnation of tyrants, when it could be better used to try to "understand" what's really going on and how to try to intervene to fix it. And I'd recommend anyone seriously interested in politics to do the same. (See point 9)

3) Human rights for all.

We hold the fundamental human rights codified in the Universal Declaration to be precisely universal, and binding on all states and political movements, indeed on everyone. Violations of these rights are equally to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context. We reject the double standards with which much self-proclaimed progressive opinion now operates, finding lesser (though all too real) violations of human rights which are closer to home, or are the responsibility of certain disfavoured governments, more deplorable than other violations that are flagrantly worse. We reject, also, the cultural relativist view according to which these basic human rights are not appropriate for certain nations or peoples.

Phil : As above. I agree human rights are universal. But my responsibility is greatest where I have the greatest power to act. I happen to believe that smart diplomacy, some opening up via trade and other cultural connections has more positive benefit with fewer bad side effects than dropping bombs. I accept that sometimes bombs are a quick way to get a visible result (eg. women voting in Afghanistan) but that's no compensation for the negative externalities from, and general failure of, our military campaign there.

4) Equality.

We espouse a generally egalitarian politics. We look towards progress in relations between the sexes (until full gender equality is achieved), between different ethnic communities, between those of various religious affiliations and those of none, and between people of diverse sexual orientations — as well as towards broader social and economic equality all round. We leave open, as something on which there are differences of viewpoint amongst us, the question of the best economic forms of this broader equality, but we support the interests of working people everywhere and their right to organize in defence of those interests. Democratic trade unions are the bedrock organizations for the defence of workers' interests and are one of the most important forces for human rights, democracy-promotion and egalitarian internationalism. Labour rights are human rights. The universal adoption of the International Labour Organization Conventions — now routinely ignored by governments across the globe — is a priority for us. We are committed to the defence of the rights of children, and to protecting people from sexual slavery and all forms of institutionalized abuse.

Phil : Sure, I can sign up for that. But that's pretty much because it's so vague. I'm interested in discussing the actual specifics about best organizational and economic forms.

Where the manifesto is specific, in its promotion of democratic trade unions and against sexual slavery, I'm a 100% behind it. (Although, as always, I'm pragmatic, I believe that trade-unions happen to be the best institutions we have to fight for and protect workers' rights, but that doesn't mean that something better might not come along.)

5) Development for freedom.

We stand for global economic development-as-freedom and against structural economic oppression and environmental degradation. The current expansion of global markets and free trade must not be allowed to serve the narrow interests of a small corporate elite in the developed world and their associates in developing countries. The benefits of large-scale development through the expansion of global trade ought to be distributed as widely as possible in order to serve the social and economic interests of workers, farmers and consumers in all countries. Globalization must mean global social integration and a commitment to social justice. We support radical reform of the major institutions of global economic governance (World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank) to achieve these goals, and we support fair trade, more aid, debt cancellation and the campaign to Make Poverty History. Development can bring growth in life-expectancy and in the enjoyment of life, easing burdensome labour and shortening the working day. It can bring freedom to youth, possibilities of exploration to those of middle years, and security to old age. It enlarges horizons and the opportunities for travel, and helps make strangers into friends. Global development must be pursued in a manner consistent with environmentally sustainable growth.

Phil : Yep, I agree with all that. Although, again, I'd like to see some intresting thinking about the details. There are endogenous forces within markets that push towards inequality and accelerating the consumption of scarce natural resources. Compatibilism between economic dynamism, ecological sustainability, and egalitarian distribution is uncontroversial in theory, but tricky in practice. If we want it, that's what we actually need to be putting our minds to. Proposing solutions to this problem must be at the heart of any ongoing left-wing project.

6) Opposing anti-Americanism.

We reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking. This is not a case of seeing the US as a model society. We are aware of its problems and failings. But these are shared in some degree with all of the developed world. The United States of America is a great country and nation. It is the home of a strong democracy with a noble tradition behind it and lasting constitutional and social achievements to its name. Its peoples have produced a vibrant culture that is the pleasure, the source-book and the envy of millions. That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.

Phil : I've described myself as anti-American in the past. For consistency's sake, I'd better do so again, with what I hope is a nuanced enough explanation not to hurt the feelings of my American friends and readers. Although some people are going to take offence anyway, and there's nothing I can do about them.

As the world's only global hyperpower, the US exerts an influence over all other countries. To a certain extent, policies of the UK government are more influenced by the requirements of the American nation-state than they are by me as a British citizen and voter. (Does anyone think UK troops would be in Basra if I wanted it but the US didn't?) And yet, the American nation-state has no formal responsibilities to me. This power without responsibility or representation is unacceptable.

One of two things could modify this situation. The US could decide to consciously restrain itself from trying to influence the rest of the world : "Hey! We think going in to Iraq would be a smart move, but you don't have to be with us if you don't want to. No hard feelings if you choose to sit this one out." Or alternatively, the US nation-state could just decide to give me a vote in its elections.

Both eventualities look unlikely.

Therefore, I conclude that my best interest is served by a balance of power between the US and alternative blocks. Rival hegemons are better than one. I support the European Union (and wish the UK would be more committed to it.) I celebrate the rise of, and increasing co-operation within, the left-wing Bolivarian movement in South America (Chavez, Morales plus Kirschner and Lula as, at least sympathetic, centrists). I generally welcome China and India as economic super-powers - although I think China is, in plenty of ways, a far worse country than the US. In fact, I recognise that none of these rival power-blocks are morally superior to the US. But even so, as a non-US citizen, resident in a developing country, I believe my best interest is served by a plurality of powers which can be played-off against each other. The US, for all its virtues has demonstrated decisively that it can't be trusted as a unipolar hyperpower.

Let me give an example, which I hope shows that this isn't simply a question of Bush and the war, and which illustrates what's wrong with Eustonian unjoined-up thinking. The Eustonians call for the "radical reform of the major institutions of global economic governance (World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank)" yet don't note that the worst abuses carried out by these organizations occurred exactly when unopposed US political and economic power was at its height under the relatively benign Clinton. The US government is heavily lobbied and driven by its corporations. A world where we naively put our trust in the nobility of the US political tradition is one where we end up screwed by the reality of American sharp-practice. All the fine talk in the world can't disguise the fact that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi workers have lost their livelihoods due to the greed and incompetence of KBR and friends; who've also rooked the American people of billions of dollars.

Contrary to the Eustonians, I think that "that US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones" does indeed justify a systematic scepticism about its self-image as the good-guy. It would be better for the world if fewer people, particularly US citizens, believed that their government was always motivated by the highest goals. The US is by no means unique in its hypocrisy; but of all the self-delusional fantasists, it's the one with the most power to inflict it's delusions on the rest of us.

Personally, I'm always happy when I go to the US. And there are many admirable and inspiring elements of its culture. But so what? That someone is generally charming and has fine ideals doesn't give them a free-license for bad behaviour.

7) For a two-state solution.

We recognize the right of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to self-determination within the framework of a two-state solution. There can be no reasonable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that subordinates or eliminates the legitimate rights and interests of one of the sides to the dispute.

Phil : My basic attitude to the whole Israeli / Palestinian thing is "a plague on both your houses".

One of my problems is that I just don't find it intellectually interesting which particular ethnic tribe gets to call one piece of land "theirs". And attempts to spin the question of Israel as something else, as a resurgence of Nazi anti-semitism or as part of the anti-colonialist struggle, don't do much for me. I don't suppose Israel has any more nor less right to exist than any other nation state. Ditto for a Palestinian state. In fact, I'm not sure nation states (unlike people) really have rights at all. I just wish they'd all stop squabbling over something so meaningless and trivial.

Having said all that, here are some observations. And I'm writing from a position of profound ignorance here, so please feel free to correct me on any facts I've got wrong.

Given the whole dysfunctional relationship that Israel and the Palestinians have fallen into, a two-state solution is probably the best way to go. Israel doesn't want a single nation-state where Palestinians get full citizenship and voting rights - because demographics mean that Israel would end up an arab country with a jewish minority within a fairly short time. (Of course, in an ideal world, this wouldn't have been a problem. The presumption that different races and religions should have to live in separate countries to be safe from one another is a dramatic failure of left-wing idealism. Nevertheless, pragmatically, a two-state solution it will have to be for the forseeable future.)

And, as far as I can tell, the only impediment to there being a fully independent Palestinian state, like, tomorrow, is that the Israelis won't just get out and leave the Palestinians to make one.

Seriously! Stripped of all the spinning and name-calling and hype about whether Arafat was venal or Hamas will or won't sign a piece of paper acknowledging Israel's right to exist, what is actually stopping there being a Palestinian state?

Is it that Israel wants a military buffer-zone against Egypt and Syria? Even after Israel has nukes (which it didn't, I think, at the time of the last attempted invasion by these neighbours.) Does Israel want the water? (As the conspiracy theorists have it.) Surely a wealthy, high-tech economy isn't really putting itself in this expensive and uncomfortable position simply for the orange-groves?

The suspicion that has to be raised is that the main reason there isn't a Palestinian state is that Israel is trying to use state-hood as a bargaining chip with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world : "No state for the Palestinians until you all promise to behave yourselves and accept our right to exist."

That's what I guess is going on, and it naturally brings the question as to whether this is either morally justifiable or strategically smart.

To deny all Palestinians statehood (and the rights that citizens of an autonomous state would have) because some Palestinians are committing atrocities against Israel looks awfully like collective punishment. And the resentment it stimulates among the Palestinians and arab neighbours seems a high price to pay for a currency that isn't being accepted.

For comparison, this is something that the US would be embarrassed to be caught doing in Iraq. The US never says Iraq will get elections, and an independent government, as a reward only once the insurgency stops and Iraqis behave themselves. Instead it's eager to be seen promoting an independent Iraqi state as quickly as possible, because it follows a belief that once there is a functioning state, the insurgency will die off. I'm not sure why the general consensus around Palestine isn't more or less the same, ie. as soon as the Israelis get out, then the antipathy of the Palestinians will decrease to managable proportions.

8) Against racism.

For liberals and the Left, anti-racism is axiomatic. We oppose every form of racist prejudice and behaviour: the anti-immigrant racism of the far Right; tribal and inter-ethnic racism; racism against people from Muslim countries and those descended from them, particularly under cover of the War on Terror. The recent resurgence of another, very old form of racism, anti-Semitism, is not yet properly acknowledged in left and liberal circles. Some exploit the legitimate grievances of the Palestinian people under occupation by Israel, and conceal prejudice against the Jewish people behind the formula of "anti-Zionism". We oppose this type of racism too, as should go without saying.

Phil : Pretty much agree with this point.

Particularly, I'm against identity politics of all kinds. Identity politics is, incidently, a heavily debated issue in left, "cultural Marxist" circles - rather than a dogma. I happen to think we should be resistent to it. Race is not a useful category to organize around. Even though it's a category that exists within the current political reality, and it's dangerous to ignore it entirely; the best thing we can do is attempt to exorcise it as quickly as possible. Faced with two strategies of political organization, one highlighting or valorizing the concept of race, and one not, I think we should prefer the second.

Aside : As far as I understand, "anti-zionism" means being hostile to the idea of a jewish nation-state. Obviously there's a bit of framing in the Eustonian position to spin this as anti-semitism. I don't buy it.

But I'm happy to accept that too many on the left try to slot Arabic nationalism among legitimate left concerns, and I am against that. To be clear, yeah, people on the left make too much common cause with Arab nationalism and political Islamic groups, and we shouldn't; to the extent the Eustonians are worrying about and critical of this tendency, I'm with them.

9) United against terror.

We are opposed to all forms of terrorism. The deliberate targeting of civilians is a crime under international law and all recognized codes of warfare, and it cannot be justified by the argument that it is done in a cause that is just. Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today. It threatens democratic values and the lives and freedoms of people in many countries. This does not justify prejudice against Muslims, who are its main victims, and amongst whom are to be found some of its most courageous opponents. But, like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, and not excused.

Phil : Yeah. I'm against terrorism.

It happens that I don't think terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is a big threat to "democratic values"; nor is it the real threat to "the lives and freedoms of people in many countries." But explaining why not is gonna be another bit of complex thinking rather than simplistic dividing the world into black and white. (Sorry if you came here looking for a quick sound bite.)

The only threats I can imagine to "values" are rival values which have a greater purchase on the mind of the listeners. (Consider this a memetic competition between different value systems.) Now the world is certainly experiencing a general shift towards (often religious) fundamentalisms and against the values shared by all decent liberals and leftists. A recent instance : my aunt, a liberal school-teacher who takes a kindly interest in some of her pupils that are refugees in the UK, was recently invited to church by a boy who was a 7th Day Adventist. There she was shocked and appalled as the warm welcome and friendly community atmosphere devolved into a full fire-and-brimstone homophobic sermon.

Liberal values are under threat in mosques throughout the world. But they are also under threat in churches, and on Christian satelite television channels. And probably in synagogues and Hindu temples and Buddhist meditation centres too. I'm saying this, not to find excuses to pick on the US nor to make a claim for moral equivalence or relativity. I'm saying this because if you're concerned about the erosion of liberal values then you ought, at least, to be interested in trying to understand what's making them go away.

Very few people change their values because someone with a rival value blew up their sister on the bus. Physical threats may change your behaviour, but tend to strengthen your values. Values change when people find themselves in situations, often of stress, where their existing values seem to have let them down. Or where their default background values are confused and inconsistent and no longer give them the guidance they need.

Islamism is now widely recognised to find purchase in two specific types of communities :

a) disaffected members of Islamic immigrant communities in Europe and the West, who are searching for an identity, and

b) disaffected members of denied religious sub-groups in Islamic countries who's governments are oppresive and secular or opressive and hypocritical.

Sayyid Qutb became radicalized in the US and under torture in Egypt. Bin Laden is the product of Saudi Arabia. The Taliban were the reaction to waves of confusion in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the US, Russia and various tribal warlords played out their great game there. OTOH, Islamism is not something that arises in Afghanistan under the Taliban, nor Iran under the Ayatollah. It was not a weapon in the hands of Saddam Hussein (although it may have been formenting in the opposition to him.)

This needs to be made clear. And, once again, the aim isn't to simply shift the blame for the problem of Islamism onto the US or Europe or Russia. But to understand what's really likely to combat it.

Search for identity in uncertain times and places is what makes people fundamentalist. The comfort and security of good jobs in convivial surroundings makes them liberal. That's why the risk-lite groves of academe and boom-time creative cities breed liberal values, while poverty, prejudice and uncertainty drive people into the mosques and churches.

Keep this in mind. But let's continue with the Eustonians beyond values : lives and freedoms are under attack too. It's true, and the bad news is that it's getting worse.

But not because Islamism is especially wicked or powerful. Our safety is diminishing because, as the fourth-generation war people put it, the nation-state has lost the monopoly on violence. All non-state actors, whatever their ideological motivations, are potentially empowered by new technologies and organizational structures, to cause more damage than ever before.

More people allegedly die in gang-warfare in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro than in the Palestinian Intifada. The US confronts a similar rising violence on its Mexican border. These are symptoms of the democratisation of violence, and the shift in loyalties from the nation-state to some other identity-system, whether religious or ethnic or economic.

I don't approve of that thing that the Eustonians label "Islamist terrorism". But I see it for what it is : one among dozens of fundamentalisms, acting as one among dozens of malign networks. You could scour "Islamism" from the earth, and tomorrow the same problems would be with us under another label : an uncertain world where the dispossessed search for identity and self-assertion through membership of gangs and tribes with excessively anti-liberal ideologies. Such gangs must have an anti-liberal ideology, because notions of them-and-us, sinners-and-saved, infidel-and-martyr are the basic principle holding them together in the first place. If your sense of self depends on your membership of a gang. And the main organizing principle of the gang is that members are good and non-members are bad, then inevitably liberal values of tolerance and egalitarianism are out of the window.

I'd sign a manifesto that recognised this; that recognised that violent terrorism is the hallmark of all repressive fundamentalisms. And that the proper response is to build benign networks of participation and discover new identities based on shared projects and activities : membership of alt.currencies or gifting circles, free-software projects and blogrolls; quilting circles and book-clubs; theatre, music, dance and a million other things humans do together to express who they are. This, and only this, do I consider to be a serious attempt to fight "terror". :-)

Building up our militias to fight Islamist violence with violence of our own, is mere surrender to terrorism. To the extent that "united front against terror" is simply cheerleading this response, it's selling off the liberal birthright to look below the superficial to see the underlying patterns and causes.

10) A new internationalism.

We stand for an internationalist politics and the reform of international law — in the interests of global democratization and global development. Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the "common life" of all peoples. If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a "responsibility to protect".

Phil : Sure, we should be able to use troops to intervene and prevent genocides. When there's a damned good justification for intervention (which includes competence and reasonable grounds for assuming the intervention will be a success) then by all means send in the troops to protect people.

11) A critical openness.

Drawing the lesson of the disastrous history of left apologetics over the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as more recent exercises in the same vein (some of the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the "anti-war" movement with illiberal theocrats), we reject the notion that there are no opponents on the Left. We reject, similarly, the idea that there can be no opening to ideas and individuals to our right. Leftists who make common cause with, or excuses for, anti-democratic forces should be criticized in clear and forthright terms. Conversely, we pay attention to liberal and conservative voices and ideas if they contribute to strengthening democratic norms and practices and to the battle for human progress.

Phil : +1 to this. Self-criticism is essential for any viable project, including a leftist political one. Always pay attention to criticism. And, as a leftist, you should certainly be aware that the right will tend to notice things that you have blind-spots about. So pay special attention to them.

12) Historical truth.

In connecting to the original humanistic impulses of the movement for human progress, we emphasize the duty which genuine democrats must have to respect for the historical truth. Not only fascists, Holocaust-deniers and the like have tried to obscure the historical record. One of the tragedies of the Left is that its own reputation was massively compromised in this regard by the international Communist movement, and some have still not learned that lesson. Political honesty and straightforwardness are a primary obligation for us.

Phil : Agreed again. Although, we shouldn't be so cowed as to take any old bullshit accusations that rightist populists like to throw around at leftist projects of the past. Sometimes the rightists are just lying. And they need to be called out on that. The left don't have a monopoly on self-serving dishonesty.

13) Freedom of ideas.

We uphold the traditional liberal freedom of ideas. It is more than ever necessary today to affirm that, within the usual constraints against defamation, libel and incitement to violence, people must be at liberty to criticize ideas — even whole bodies of ideas — to which others are committed. This includes the freedom to criticize religion: particular religions and religion in general. Respect for others does not entail remaining silent about their beliefs where these are judged to be wanting.

Phil : Yep. Take it further. I'm not sure we need official constraints against defamation and libel either. Or rather, these are problems associated with an imbalance of power between mass-media producers and a passive, receptive audience. If we can undo that imbalance, and with it, excessive credibility within the audience, there shouldn't be a need for institutions to try to forbid people dissing each other.

14) Open source.

As part of the free exchange of ideas and in the interests of encouraging joint intellectual endeavour, we support the open development of software and other creative works and oppose the patenting of genes, algorithms and facts of nature. We oppose the retrospective extension of intellectual property laws in the financial interests of corporate copyright holders. The open source model is collective and competitive, collaborative and meritocratic. It is not a theoretical ideal, but a tested reality that has created common goods whose power and robustness have been proved over decades. Indeed, the best collegiate ideals of the scientific research community that gave rise to open source collaboration have served human progress for centuries.

Phil : Good. But really this should be given star-billing. The free-software movement is the world's first succesful movement to roll back an attempt at enclosure. Not only that, but as the first well studied and theorized example of "commons based peer production", it's the herald of new thinking about economic relations and the articulation of labour. This has to be at the heart of new left-wing theory. Not simply that "everything should be open source", but that it becomes clear that the market is not always the best solution to the problem. We can look beyond simply asking "market vs. government" to a whole new world of different economic strategies. This is the beginning of the end for one-size-fits-all capitalism.

15) A precious heritage.

We reject fear of modernity, fear of freedom, irrationalism, the subordination of women; and we reaffirm the ideas that inspired the great rallying calls of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century: liberty, equality and solidarity; human rights; the pursuit of happiness. These inspirational ideas were made the inheritance of us all by the social-democratic, egalitarian, feminist and anti-colonial transformations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — by the pursuit of social justice, the provision of welfare, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all men and women. None should be left out, none left behind. We are partisans of these values. But we are not zealots. For we embrace also the values of free enquiry, open dialogue and creative doubt, of care in judgement and a sense of the intractabilities of the world. We stand against all claims to a total — unquestionable or unquestioning — truth.

Phil : I think this means that they see themselves as both left-wing, and part of the critical tradition. So do I.


chad said...

i'll read your whole post thursday when i'm not under the gun to deliver some work. but its impossible not to snark that those guys need to just give it up and become republicans already. the whole thing seems just to be an attempt to mau-mau those of us who were right all along about the iraqmire being incredibly bone-headed on a number of levels. end of day, us left/liberals are against invading a bunch of middle eastern countries and its got nothing to do with some unholy "alliance" with islamic radicals as they so coyly allege. its got to do with having a much higher standard for justifying aggressive war than these euston folks apparently have.

John Powers said...

I really respect the time it took to do this post. These comments of mine don't reflect a similar effort, although the subject is worthy of it.

You wrote: "I believe my best interest is served by a plurality of powers which can be played-off against each other. The US, for all its virtues has demonstrated decisively that it can't be trusted as a unipolar hyperpower."

As an American, I don't find this anti-American. At least the concept of checks on power is something Americans tend to understand as a matter of principle.

I agree with you that we are threatened now by non-state actors "empowered by new technologies and organizational structures." I also think this new reality changes historical models of competition between rival powers. Definitely need to develop my thinking here to say something useful, but suffice it to say it a new world.

John Robb's observation of private security causes anxiety, and I need to think more about that too.

Your comments places commons-based peer production at the heart of new left-wing theory; and solutions to find "compatibilism between economic dynamism, ecological sustainability, and egalitarian distribution" at the "heart of any ongoing left-wing project."

I've got to love your heart!

There was a piece in Harpers a while back--too lazy to look it up--that compared Londoner's reactions to the transit bombings to reactions during the Blitz. One observation was that ordinary people had the idea that once the war was over we could all go on towards building a better world. And that a similar optimism doesn't prevail today.

It seems to me what you place at the heart of what are left folks to do has the advantage of providing some reason for optimism.

Composing said...

thanks chad and kaunda.

Kaunda. I arrived in London the day the first bombs went off. What was most interesting was the difference after the first lot of bombs and the second.

After the first, the attitude was resigned : "OK, we were expecting this" and an assumption that we'd adapt to these bombings as we did with the IRA. There was some talk of Blitz spirit and resilience too.

After the second, the whole thing changed. People were in a real panic. This was gonna be a concerted, high-frequency campaign. Waves of bombers etc. And worse, we didn't all assume the bombers had killed themselves in the attacks. Suddenly things looked a lot more dangerous. This was gonna be like Tel Aviv.

Optimism about "once the war [is] over we [can] all go on towards building a better world" is tricky when you've been promised a long war without clear or plausible objectives. Bin Laden and Bush have achieved what they were itching for, an escalation of a chronic friction between two very different cultures into a full scale blood-feud. This isn't going to be "over". Not in our life-time.

John Powers said...

Late in checking out your comments to this post. At least I am thinking some more about the issues raised and am back.

>This isn't going to be "over". Not in our life-time.

I didn't include enough of what you said: "this" refers to "a full scale blood feud" between "two very different cultures."

Also from the broader context of the discussion "this" refers to what John Robb refers to as "the first epochal war of the 21st Century."

I agree with you about this not being "over" in our live times.

My comments about the London bombings were insensitive; annoying at least. I think it's quite possible that the realization you refer to "Suddenly things looked a lot more dangerous" hasn't set-in here in the USA.

What I meant pointing to WW II is the notion that the objective in mind in Britain then wasn't simply the destruction of the Nazis, but included a progressive vision beyond.

Your comments in re the Euston Manifesto about what must be at the heart of a left agenda: commons-based peer production and solutions for economic dynamism broadly shared and which is ecologically sustainable, suggest forward movement and were especially welcome. Optimism was a poor word to choose.

Networks create danger and opportunity. You point out in your next post that name-calling is worse than useless and propose that radical analysis is needed.

In my far from extensive investigation of the discussion of the Euston Manifesto, so far the American bloggers who've signed seem to coalesce as a decidedly more hawkish group than their British counterparts, more right-wing too. It's embarrassing to say it, but being left-wing has always seemed more work here than I could muster. Ideology is "hard work." Events are quite pressing now, enough so to get my attention. I'm not a pacifist--again too lazy--but abhor war in a very visceral way. I'm trying my best to engage in the "serious thinking about we believe and how this should be articulated in the 21st Century." The Euston Manifesto hasn't garnered as much attention here in the US, but it seems a useful document for discussion here. The hard part fis getting to the root of the American bloggers "kick butt" warmongering embrace of it.

I'm slow and I know it. Still I'm very grateful for your thoughtful insights and attention to this.

Composing said...

"My comments about the London bombings were insensitive; annoying at least."

Rubbish! Of course they weren't insensitive!!! Perfectly good and acceptable comments here, I assure you. :-)

(BTW : My original posting was a lot more insensitive. I invited a comment from one of the authors of Euston, and he said he refused to read it after the second paragraph. Doh! I hadn't thought of that. I have to be less aggressive in future.)

Of coure, I'm an optimist. That's very important to me. Although I recognise the value of Gramsci's "optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect" which I take to mean that you can't be Panglossian and not recognise that the world has serious problems (that's the pessimism bit), but you can't despair, your job is to look for whatever seems the best way forward. That's the optimism.

I was a little bit shocked when I wrote "This isn't going to be "over". Not in our life-time."

I hope that's not true. Or I hope we can find a strategy to end it. But I also think the current direction of many people, to interpret this as a "them-and-us" problem. And demand we get up and recognise the evils of the "them", is exactly the wrong way to go about attenuating it.

One of the analogies I look at is Northern Ireland. The British Army has been in Ireland for almost 40 years. And yet there's still huge sectarian tension, the various IRA splinter groups and loyalist paramilitaries still exist : half criminal gang, half slumbering militia.

Ethnically and culturally, the real differences between NI catholics, protestants and the English soldiers is as near to nothing as (ought to) make no difference. The British army has (allegedly) spent a lot of effort trying to occupy sensitively. (That's what's always touted as one of our (the British) great advantages in Iraq. That we've learned how to do this.)

So, arguably, NI is one of the better case scenarios. And yet the presence of the army neither solved the sectarian tensions, nor did the army succesfully fight the IRA to death.

In nearly 40 years.

How long can the West reasonably stay the course in Iraq waiting for this to end?

John Powers said...

>I invited a comment from one of the authors of Euston, and he said he refused to read it after the second paragraph.<

Wow! You put that after "BTW" but it doesn't seem tangential to the broader project "to sit down with a few like-minded people and thrash-out what you believe."

This is tangential: I'm interested in how thin-skinned the punditry here in the USA is. I wonder, did they somehow miss Usenet forums? I was late to go online, and when I first read Usenet post chills went up my spine. I got used to it and not from simply becoming coarse; the redeeming feature is how genuine humanity shows through as often as it does.

Really hashing out what we believe depends on acknowledging the humanity of others. The hard feelings over this manifesto seems a bit over the top. Perhaps the meta discussion about the project is more central to it than we first expect.

>I also think the current direction of many people, to interpret this as a "them-and-us" problem. And demand we get up and recognize the evils of the "them", is exactly the wrong way to go about attenuating it.<

I really agree. Your "an escalation of a chronic friction between two very different cultures" seemed like "A Clash of Civilizations" which doesn't seem to me to be the right lens to view this conflict with terrorism, if only because there appear so many different actors involved.

I don't know about your question about how long the "West can stay the course" in Iraq. It seems to me the West has sailed into the reef, so "staying the course" seems the wrong question much less a strategy.

I'm very happy you've devoted some space to the Euston Manifesto on your blog. I personally appreciate the bit about my comments being perfectly acceptable. I also think that general component of discussions of this sort are important and not often enough seen as important. Recently in Slate Fred Kaplan and Amartya Sen had a debate. Amartya Sen impressed me in how he was able to bring to the debate useful meta discussions about the conduct of the wider discourse about the issues. It didn't seem a ploy to de-fang Kaplan, indeed rather a willingness on Sen's part to enable Kaplan to say what he truly thinks. The point is we have to find ways of having discussions. And you facilitate discussion very well, despite your rebuff by a Eustontonian.

I haven't read Amartya Sen's new book "Identity and Violence" but a enjoyed this essay adapted from it

"The increasing tendency to overlook the many identities that any human being has and to try to classify individuals according to a single allegedly pre-eminent religious identity is an intellectual confusion that can animate dangerous divisiveness....What is surprising is that those who would like to quell that violence promote, in effect, the same intellectual disorientation by seeing Muslims primarily as members of an Islamic world."

John Robb is very interesting to me. I would have a very hard time being a student of warfare. So I always have to ask myself if I really disagree with some point or another he makes or whether it's my general difficulty thinking about warfare that's mixing me up. In a very general way his understanding of open source threats and 21st Century warfare are convincing to me. Sen's point about "the many identities" people have points both to the source of problems and to possible solutions. Sometimes that means we've got to read beyond the second paragraph to get anywhere.